Theatre in Wales

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Figures in the Forest (1)

At National Theatre

National Theatre of Wales- Branches: the Nature of Crisis , Wepre Park Connah’s Quay , September 12, 2012
At National Theatre by National Theatre of Wales- Branches: the Nature of Crisis Deeside, Mike Parker tells us in his indispensable Rough Guide, was once thick with forest. It is all long gone and Wepre Park stands on its own. The audience gathers for its two and three-quarter hour forest walk beneath a giant cedar. A knowledgeable member among us says that from the size of its cones he can tell of the tree’s great age.

The production is played out in a steeply rising limestone valley. The company of eleven performers, seven community players and four musicians are dwarfed by Wepre’s trees, which are forty or more feet high. It is a windless night-turns-to-evening so that the sound of running water is ever-present and undiluted.

The first stop of the production is at the gorge’s lowest point. A beautiful black-haired mermaid is reclining on a rock. She, and we, are serenaded by a tenor. It must be the first time that a German Lied has been sung to the accompaniment of vibraphone and waterfall. Director Constanza Macras first tableau-scene is one of originality and confidence; from then on National Theatre of Wales’ final production of its second year never looks back

For the first performance of its second week “Branches: the Nature of Crisis” has attracted a large and mixed audience. There are families represented by three generations, with an age span running across seven decades. At the close a ten year old, on being asked her favourite part, says it was what she calls the hen party. These are two teenagers, in opposed black and white mini-dresses, splashing in the water and arguing at length about going out for a doner kebab.

Constanza Macras creates a wide palette of aural and visual contrast. Six upturned wine bottles dangle on string from a branch. Their delicate tinkling sound has an echo in an unseen counterpart somewhere among the trees. Almut Lustig creates a frisson of sound by running a violin bow along a cardboard box, then the edge of a cymbal. The sense of entrancement is almost heightened with the passing by of the occasional, bemused evening jogger or dog-walker.

The production has a range of creative contributors behind it. The credits include a creative technologist and digital and audio-visual designer. Sergio Pessanha has hung trees with lights that subtly blend with or amplify the falling twilight. Constanza Macras’ choreography has a Dionysiac strand to it that, in the shaded settings, touches on something quite deep.

Drenching rain in the afternoon has turned the ascent to Ewloe Castle to slithery mud and made impossible the production’s usual climax. Instead two of the production team hoist speakers onto their shoulders. The company moves to a more open space and writhe to a clash of guitar and drum mix. “Branches: the Nature of Crisis” uses plenty of technology but it is used as the servant to theatre and not its master.

A dual strand of narrative is interwoven between music and movement. The story of John Law and the Mississippi Bubble, brought to stage by fellow Scot David Greig in “the Speculator” in 1999, is an intended mirror for our ruinous times. The other narrative is taken from the Mabinogion. At its end Jem Treays closes the tale of Bendigeidfran and seizes a microphone. Almut Lustig unleashes a ferocious drum roll and it is straight into “London Calling” with blistering breaks on saxophone from Sadie Finch. True to Allie Saunders’ costume design she is in pierrot hat, a frilled kilt and Sergeant Pepper jacket.

“A German joke is no laughing matter” runs the old and smug British quip. “Branches: the Nature of Crisis” is leavened throughout with an engaging humour. A tiger wears Wellington boots. Adanna Oji and Miki Shoji are agitated squawking figures, in bowler hat and pheasant feathers, who rush through the ambling audience. An eight-year old among us spots an Indiana Jones hiding behind a tree. She claims she has spotted the Hulk. If he was not there, fellow comic book heroes Superman and Robin are there for sure. A group of mini-Chewbaccas tumble down a slope. This element of the production comes courtesy of the community performers, Leana Board, Ben Hall, Luke Hamnett, Rebecca Lopuc, Sophie Massey, Julie Parmenter and Luke Roberts.

The production has only a pocket-sized programme that doubles as a map of the park. NTW’s entire board gets a listing but there are no cast pictures or biographies. One, among Lara Ward, Gareth Aled, Louis Becker, Rosalind Haf Brooks,
Catriona James, Nile Koetting, Ana Mondini and Hansel Nezza, is an electrifying pink-haired banshee punk singer.

Back in the normal world a couple of miles from Wepre stands a pillar box painted gold. The celebratory flags are still out and flying for Jade Jones. Gold too for “Branches: the Nature of Crisis” and for all who have played their part in its making.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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